IAVA Calls on the VA to Address Tuition Cap Confusion

IAVA is committed to helping the VA support veterans and looks forward to being a strong partner in the future. But today, we submitted a letter to VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki to address a growing stream of questions and concerns from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans about the VA's preliminary tuition and fee caps for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The VA’s interpretation of the law, coupled with poor communication to veterans, is proving both unfair and confusing. Ideally, the Post 9/11 GI Bill would not be capped, and would instead cover all tuition and fees, at any school in the country. Unfortunately, current law caps veterans’ education benefits, and VA interpretation of the law has worsened the problem by creating confusion and magnifying inequities within the GI Bill. In the short term, IAVA is recommending to Secretary Shinseki that the VA revise its policy to create a more equitable, straightforward, and generous benefit before the August 1st, 2009 deadline.

Specifically, IAVA has identified three key critical issues that the VA must address:

  1. The VA’s tuition/fee payment structure is founded upon a faulty model.
  2. The VA has released confusing information about tuition and fees payments.
  3. The VA has created a glaring inequity that favors schools with shorter terms.

Issue 1:

The VA’s entire tuition/fee payment structure is founded upon a faulty model.

  • The Post 9/11 GI Bill requires the VA to set tuition/fee caps based on the single most expensive public school program in each state. But the VA has decided to set each cap by combining the most expensive tuition from one program and the most expensive fees from another – even if no veteran could feasibly enroll in both of these programs simultaneously. As a result, each state cap has no relation to the actual cost of attending public school in that state.
  • This mechanism gives certain states very high state caps, and other states much lower benefits, creating strong incentives for students to attend schools in states with higher caps. For example, why would a student attend school in Washington, D.C., when they would receive six times more in tuition and fees to attend a Maryland college?
  • The payment structure also creates an incentive for states to create expensive niche education programs that drive up each state’s cap, and for private schools to locate in states with high caps so they can charge a large amount of tuition/fees. Similar forms of abuse were reported in the 1956 Bradley Commission Report after the WWII GI Bill.
  • IAVA Recommendation? Ensure state caps reflect the actual cost of enrollment in public school. The VA should base each state cap on the actual cost of the most expensive program in each state, considering tuition and fees together.

Issue 2:

The VA has released confusing information about tuition and fees payments

  • The complicated and unclear tuition/fees chart currently posted on the VA website and is distributed to the media is causing great confusion among veterans, leaving them unsure of the benefits to which they are entitled. As a result, IAVA has been bombarded with phone calls and emails from veterans seeking clarification. The simplest solution is to have a single rate for each state, unaffected by a veteran’s course load. This simple and generous fix would not require new legislation nor a change to the VA’s IT system.
  • If the VA is unwilling to adopt a single rate for each state, the VA must, at minimum, improve the way in which they communicate the current benefit to veterans. For the purposes of deciding the state cap, the VA calculates tuition and fees separately. The VA has not made clear whether a veteran’s tuition benefit can only be applied to tuition, or whether the fees benefit only be used to satisfy fees. The answer affects a significant number of students attending graduate programs and private schools. Many schools simply list their charges as “tuition and fees,” treating the two as one amount. If the VA does not allow the fees benefit to be used towards tuition (and vice versa), veterans will likely overestimate how much their benefits would cover. The VA should instead combine the tuition and fees benefit into a single benefit and develop a comprehensive strategy to educate veterans about their benefits by using a full range of internet resources, public events, high profile spokespeople and leveraging the membership outreach of the VSOs.
  • IAVA Recommendation? Combine tuition and fees benefits into a single understandable number.

Issue 3:

The VA has created a glaring inequity that favors schools with shorter terms

  • By pegging state caps on a per-term basis and allowing each school to dictate the definition of a “term,” the VA has created a glaring inequity that favors schools with shorter terms. For example, veterans attending college on a quarter system will receive 50% higher benefits then a veteran attending school on a semester system. We acknowledge that for this problem to be resolved, the VA’s IT system would need to be modified, regulations would need to be changed and the August 1st deadline would be threatened. We recommend that the VA and Congress begin addressing this issue so that it could be resolved for the 2010-11 school year.
  • IAVA Recommendation? Define “terms” as a fixed period of time.

During Secretary Shinseki's hearing last month, he repeatedly emphasized his commitment to a timely and fair implementation of the GI Bill. We appreciate his dedication, but is imperative that the VA works diligently and efficiently to resolve these issues so that no veteran is left behind come August 1st.

Click here to read IAVA's letter to VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki.